By Matthew Schafer, CPT, CFN
Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved
The other day I had to listen to someone give a lecture on weight loss and fitness, and while I was able to hold my tongue it was only with great effort. This person tried to come across as an expert but merely regurgitated the typical information you find in a fitness magazine or hear people talk about in gyms, and the problem is most of that information is either only partially true or just plain wrong.
One of the problems with a lot of the common information that’s regurgitated is that some of it is true, but only true in certain situations, or if you only use certain definitions. There are a lot of things that are only true if you use a very narrow look at research findings, and it gets even worse when you consider that most of the common fitness knowledge out there comes not from real scientists doing real unbiased research, but rather from companies hired by the food and fitness industry to conduct “scientific” studies meant solely to provide evidence that their products work as advertised.
One of the incredibly misleading things these research companies do when conducting a fat loss or muscle building study is to only use healthy people between the ages of 18 and 25. What people don’t realize is that people in these age ranges are so hopped up on human growth hormone and other natural growth mechanisms that nearly any fitness program will produce results. The "scientists" make these young people take whatever muscle building or weight loss product they are testing and then put them on a reduced calorie diet and make them go and work out a couple days a week, usually with a personal trainer, and guess what…all of the 20 year olds who ate less and exercised lost fat and gained muscle…so the new product must work! This is incredibly misleading to the general public but it is these kinds of tests that that are paid to engineer a specific outcome that produces most of the fitness and weight loss knowledge the “experts” are spouting today.
One of my favorite nutrition experts is name Brad Pilon. He worked as a research and development manager for one of the largest supplement companies in the world and ended up leaving in disgust over the amount of corruption in the industry. Over and over he saw supplement companies coming out with new products and then buying test results from labs to prove that the new product worked. Being an industry insider with the education and experience to understand the actual scientific studies being done, he has devoted his life to help people understand the garbage spewed out by the fitness industry. A good deal of the information that follows comes from reading his books (as well as the education I received in becoming a Certified Personal Trainer, CPT, and Certified Fitness Nutritionist, CFN) and then double checking his sources which he happily gives and encourages you to check.
Here are five of the most common myths that everybody is regurgitating and the actual scientific truth behind them. It should be noted that the information I give here is assuming you are perfectly healthy. There are some illnesses that cause the various systems in your body to act abnormally and either speed up or slow down your metabolism.
“Myth #1: If you don’t eat regularly you go into starvation mode and your body eats itself, or it stores each and everything you eat because it thinks food is no longer available.”
Truth: There is a degree of truth to this, but here is whole truth as it applies to losing weight...your body is not stupid or suicidal, if you have body fat to burn your body will burn it before it starts to consume lean tissue. Also, this myth takes a very short sighted look at how your body works. When you look at weight loss you shouldn't measure it day to day, but rather, at a minimum, week to week.
Your body weight fluctuates day to day with your level of hydration so it is very hard to draw reliable conclusions about weight loss on a daily basis. You might step on the scale in the morning and see that you gained two pounds when in reality you lost one pound of fat but drank an abnormally large amount of water the previous day or consumed a very large amount of sodium. Remember, the typical bottle of water is a pint, and “a pint is a pound the world around.” If you weigh yourself and then drink a standard bottle of water and step back on the scale you will have gained one pound but not gotten any fatter.
If you look at results week to week you have enough data to actually draw a conclusion. Let's say for the sake of argument that on Monday your body does freak out and end up storing more of what you eat as fat than what it normally would. When your body gets done freaking out things will go back to normal and everything will even out. So even it it does freak out on Monday, by Friday or Saturday it will have evened out. So if you do go through periods where you don’t consume as much you MIGHT store more of the little amount you do eat, but if that does happen it will all even out over time, AND your body will still break down and consume body fat if it needs to. “Starvation mode”, as it is commonly talked about in the fitness industry, is a myth.
The only time you will go into actual starvation mode is if you are completely out of excess body fat. If you go up to a starving person in Africa and give him a cheeseburger, because he is actually starving, his body will store everything it can and he will only defecate a small portion of it. It is important to understand that, in a healthy person, PROLONGED FASTING LEADING TO KETOSIS is what happens when a person doesn’t have an ample supply of calories in the bloodstream, muscle cells, or liver to meet its needs and starts breaking down stored body fat for energy, STARVING it what happens AFTER you run out of excess body fat and your body is forced to start breaking down lean tissue for energy to survive.
The only other way your body will store an abnormally high amount of something is if you give it something it hasn’t had in a long time. For example, a lot of people who did the Atkins’s diet and restricted carbohydrates binged on carbohydrates when they stopped the program. Since their bodies hadn’t had carbohydrates in a long time when their bodies detected them it stockpiled them and this led to heart attacks in some cases.
The typical American has enough body fat to feed their body for 4 to 5 days. This means that if the typical American stopped eating on Monday their body would have enough fat stored to feed it until at least Thursday or Friday. On Thursday or Friday when their excess fat stores are depleted, only then does the body go into “starvation mode” and consume lean tissue.
If you have more body fat than the typical American then you can last even longer. A morbidly obese person weighing over 300 lbs. can go several months surviving off of body fat until it is all depleted and the person needs to consume lean tissue.
This is another problem with studies regarding fasting. If a lab is doing a study on the effects of fasting they choose typical fairly healthy subjects who are fairly skinny. These skinny people only have enough body fat to last them a few days before they start to starve, and so the conclusion is made that fasting is bad for you after a very short period of time. The truth for a healthy person is that fasting can be very beneficial, and for a healthy person fasting, especially intermittent fasting, can be a very effective way to lose excess body fat.
Myth #2: “If you’re dieting you need to focus on eating protein because protein builds muscle and burns fat.”
Truth: Protein, carbohydrates, and fat are the three primary macro-nutrients (source of calories) and they don’t cancel each other out like a game of rock, paper, scissors. Consuming protein CAN support fat loss in three ways. The first way is that protein CAN support muscle growth (if the necessary calories are there and if muscle growth is stimulated through work or damage) and since muscle cells require more calories than fat cells to survive the more muscle you have the more calories you burn overall. However, it should be noted that a pound of muscle requires between 6 to 13 calories a day to stay alive (based on current findings) so even if you put on an extra 20 pounds of muscle you only up your daily caloric need by between 120 and 260 calories a day, which is a fairly small amount.
The second benefit protein CAN offer fat loss is by extending digestion time. Fats and carbohydrates normally exit the stomach in under an hour once consumed, but by eating protein with the fat and carbohydrates you can offer the body something more time consuming to break down and it will be 3 to 4 hours until the last of that meal leaves the stomach. Where this CAN be of benefit is that by eating protein you can get your stomach to release food to your body over a longer period of time and this can keep your blood sugar from spiking and help it stay more level. More on this in Myth 3.
The third way is that protein is harder for your body to break down so it requires you to burn more energy to process it. I’ve heard claims that due to the increased amount of energy required to digest protein eating a large protein filled breakfast was the same as jogging 3 to 4 miles in terms of energy expenditure, but the problem with this is that while it does take more energy to process protein it doesn’t necessarily equate to fat loss. What determines fat loss is how many calories you consume in a 24 hour period or a one week period vs. your total expenditure. Eating more protein can increase your TEF (explained in myth 3) and, when combined with the amounts of your BMR and AI (also explained in myth 3) can lead to an increase in fat loss, but it not the actual protein itself that is responsible for the burning of any extra fat that could possibly result.
One place where this myth comes from is a misguided notion of what protein is and does, and also there have been studies done that you could read as supporting this myth. Studies have looked at the weight loss of people who ate higher and lesser amounts of protein in their diet and most have found that the more protein people eat the more fat they tend to lose. The problem is that if you look at the studies closely you’ll see that those eating more protein filled up on protein rich food and as a result they ate far less carbohydrates and fat and consumed less calories total. It is the decrease in the consumption of carbohydrates, fat, and calories in general that lead to the weight loss.
The last thing I’ll say about this is that there is nothing wrong with eating a high protein diet while trying to lose weight and there is evidence to suggest it may be a good idea. Did the increased protein consumption in the studies mentioned above make the participants feel fuller faster and make them feel fuller longer? Yes it did. Is there evidence to suggest that eating more protein while trying to lose fat is a good idea? Yes, provided you eat less carbohydrates and fat leading to you consuming fewer calories than you need each day.
So protein CAN have an effect that supports your efforts to eat less, and protein CAN have an effect that supports your overall weight loss goals. Protein, however, in and of itself does not build muscle nor burn fat.
Myth #3: “To lose weight you need to eat 4 small meals a day,” or “5 small meals a day,” or “6 small meals a day,” or “7 small meals,” or “eat every 3 to 4 hours all day long.” Or, “Eating frequently stokes the furnace and revs up your metabolism so you need to eat all day long.” Or, “If you don’t eat every 3 to 4 hours you’ll go into starvation mode and Satan will come up from the depths of hell and claim your soul in his firey grip.”
Truth: Ok, I was a bit dramatic on the last one but I’m just trying to match the adamancy in which these notions are held as gospel by the fitness and weight loss industry. When people find out that I only eat one or two meals a day and I’m a firm believer in intermittent fasting people look at me like they’re trying to figure out how I’m still alive. This is a good example of the fact that if you repeat something enough times people will start to regard it as true..
We’ve already talked about the nonsense of “starvation mode” so let’s talk about the necessity of eating multiple small meals all day long.
First it should be mentioned that the studies that tested this method for weight loss defined a “meal” as anything consumed, liquid or solid, that was over 45 calories. So the studies that looked at this method of numerous small meals didn’t have people stop and eat a traditional meal 5 or 6 times a day. They would eat three traditional meals a day and have two or three meals that might have consisted of a small handful of nuts or even a low calorie beverage. That being said let’s look at the nuts and bolts of this theory.
If you eat a “meal” consisting of at least one exchange (for the purpose of this paper lets say that exchange means “serving”) of each protein, carbohydrates, and fat it will take 3 to 4 hours to leave your stomach, and if you repeat this every 3 to 4 hours your body will be digesting food all day long, or at least during the waking hours of the day. By doing this you will achieve two benefits; firstly by having the food leave your stomach slowly you MIGHT prevent a spike in insulin levels and since insulin is a hormone that tells your body to store energy, by not having a spike you will have less of a signal to store the food you just ate. Lower insulin levels means less of the food you just ate will be stored as fat and it will either be burned for energy or passed through you and end up in the toilet.
The second benefit is that by doling out food slowly you will keep your blood sugar fairly level all day. If your blood sugar goes above 120 milligrams per deciliter you will have an insulin surge and if your blood sugar goes below 80 milligrams per deciliter you will feel hungry. So the thought is that by keeping your blood sugar between 80 to 120 milligrams per deciliter you will store less of what you eat and feel less hungry.
It sounds good, but is it good? We’ll it isn’t bad.
If you like eating this way then you should absolutely continue, but it just isn’t necessary. The actual benefits of this type of diet are more behavioral than physiological. Many people find that by focusing on set pre-planned meals they think about eating less and find that they can stick to a diet better. People tend to find that since they are eating several times a day they are less hungry, but is that because their blood sugar is kept level or is because they’re constantly eating? Is it both?
There is nothing wrong with this but it just isn’t the weight loss law the “experts” claim that it is, nor does it necessarily have the benefits they claim it does.
We already know that the “experts” are wrong when they claim that if you don’t eat several small meals a day you’ll go into “starvation mode” and the world will end, but they also claim that eating this way boosts your metabolism. They say that your metabolism is like a furnace and you need to keep feeding the furnace to keep your metabolism going and burn calories. Is this true? Yes and no (but, in context, mostly no).
There is no end of things that are supposed to “boost your metabolism” so let’s look at your metabolism. Metabolism is the process where your body builds things and tears things down to keep you alive. How the term is used in the fitness industry is to mean the rate at which you burn calories. This is a very narrow definition of metabolism but it is the one that we will use.
In using this definition, there are three things that regulate how many calories you burn a day (again, assuming you are healthy). Those things are your basal metabolic rate (BMR), your activity index (AI), and the thermogenic effect of food (TEF). What this all means is that your body spends energy on only three things: 1.) running the bodily functions that keep you alive, 2.) making you move, and 3.) digesting food and processing energy.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is how many calories it takes to do nothing more than run your body and keep you alive for 24 hours. If you were in a coma it is how many calories you’d burn in a day. It is not taking into account anything other than keeping you alive.
Your activity index (AI) is all the movements you make in a day. It is all the movements an average person makes just living, such as yawning and walking, plus any extra exercise like deliberate running, playing sports, or going to the gym.
The thermogenic effect of food (TEF) is the energy it takes to digest and process everything you eat, and we’ve already talked about this a little when we discussed protein.
Those three elements make up your metabolism and determine how many calories you burn in a day. Most of the things that are supposed to boost your metabolism (like pills) merely make your heart beat faster and increase your AI. Eating more protein will slightly increase your TEF.
So where in this math does eating 6 meals a day speed anything up? Taking a set amount of food and consuming it in 6 meals versus just 3 doesn’t affect your BMR, and since it is the exact same amount of food it doesn’t really affect your AI or TEF either.
The way they get away with saying that eating increases metabolism is because “truth-in-weight-loss police” don’t exist, and because in a very small way it does. If you eat something your body has to digest it and it does take energy so you are metabolizing something and for those minutes your net energy expenditure does increase, but in a way that is not necessarily meaningful.
Your metabolism is going all day long and does not stop until you die. Since your body spends most of your energy on your BMR, just keeping you alive, the most meaningful way to increase or decrease it is to weigh more or less so it has more or less of you to keep alive.
This is also why eating less, consuming fewer calories, is the secret to losing weight. If you run on a treadmill for an hour and burn 300 calories you just spent an awful lot of energy, an hour of your time, and now your body MIGHT have 300 calories to make up. But, if instead of going to the gym you look at what you eat in a day and decide to switch to diet soda and eat two fewer muffins during the day the small effort you just made could cut out 800 calories from your diet.
If you need 1500 calories a day to stay alive, you burned another 350 by moving all day long, and another 120 by digesting food that means you need 1950 calories for that day. If by cutting out the muffins and soda you only took in 1150 your body has to come up with the missing 800 calories because math is math. Since a pound of fat contains roughly 3500 calories, if you did that for 7 days you’d lose just over a pound and a half.
While very beneficial, exercise is not a very effective way to lose fat. You can go to the gym and kill yourself every day but until you eat less than what you need you won’t really lose fat. The main benefit exercise has, in terms of weight loss, is in “body reshaping”. Through exercise you can build muscles and develop a strong toned figure that fat loss can uncover.
One thing that should be mentioned before this myth is closed is that through most of human existence man only ate once, maybe twice, a day. There is no actual need to eat three times a day and that we do it today is merely a social convention. For thousands of years people have hunted and foraged all day long, expending a lot of energy, and then at the end of the day they’d sit around and eat a very large meal and did just fine.
The Spartan Army, one of the most effective military forces in history, ate just one meal a day. They would march and train and fight all day and then gather shortly before going to bed and eat a very fatty stew containing animal blood to make it taste bad.
A lot of people try to muddy the water to sell products and uncover fat loss secrets but you still can’t escape the simple truth that fat loss comes down to math: calories in versus calories out, which means eating less.
NOTE: Just so there is no confusion I'm not saying eating several small meals during the day is bad, the fact is that many people do get benefits from it. Eating small items all day long and having all meals pre-planned does help a lot of people not overeat and stick to their diet. If you are sensitive to low blood sugar then this manner of eating is probably ideal for you. There are a lot of benefits to eating this way; my point is that it isn't the grand necessity the fitness industry makes it out to be. While it can help you stick to a diet, consume less calories, and feel less hunger it doesn't "super charge" your metabolism and burn more calories versus eating everything in one sitting. While it is technically true that every time you eat something it does increase your metabolism for a little while, the rise in metabolism occurs simply because you're asking your body to do more work. It is the same rise in metabolism you'd experience if you got out of a chair and walked across the room, since you're now asking your body to do more work compared to when you were sitting in a chair.
If you eat 1500 calories of food and it takes your body 130 calories of energy to digest and process it, it doesn't matter if you eat that food all at once or in small amounts throughout the day, your body will still expend 130 calories to digest and process that food.
Myth #4: You shouldn’t eat just before going to bed because since your body doesn’t need the energy while you’re sleeping, you will just store everything as fat.
Truth: This is a very wide spread myth that is and isn’t a myth. I first heard it years ago watching a documentary on sumo wrestlers who would eat a large meal and then take a nap afterwards because they believed “sleep after eating builds bulk”.
First, you do need energy while you are sleeping. While you sleep your body is still hard at work keeping you alive and healthy. There are even “experts” who suggest that you should eat a small meal right before going to bed to keep your blood sugar level while you sleep.
It is true that you will store more of what you eat because when you are asleep there is little to do with all the extra energy you just put in your body. A far greater amount of what you just ate will be stored as fat, however for most people it will even out once you wake up and start the next day.
If you need 2000 calories per day to maintain your current weight and you consume 1000 in the morning and then the other 1000 just before going to sleep you will still have consumed 2000 for that day. Sure, because you didn’t consume the full 2000 calories during the day at the exact time your body needed it your body pulled what it needed from energy stored in your muscle cells, but then it put what it didn’t need back when you next ate. Again, look at your weight not day by day but rather week to week.
Many people have noticed that if they don’t eat before going to sleep they do in fact lose weight. Myself, I’ve noticed that if I don’t eat after 7pm I can easily lose weight but the reason is because I’m in the habit of consuming more calories later at night.
Myth #5: “A calorie isn’t a calorie,” or “not all calories are created equal" or "your body treats different calories differently."
Truth: Brad Pilon put it very succinctly when he said,
“A calorie is a measure of energy. So a calorie by definition must be a calorie, just like an inch is by definition and inch and a pound by definition is a pound.”
He also said, "The controversy over differing nutritional theories arises more from semantics and the limitation of language than it does from scientific principles." How right he is.
People argue this one over and over and the reason this doesn't get resolved is because, technically, both sides in the argument are right. The problem is that they are making different arguments. The truth is that a calorie is a calorie and always shall be; all calories ARE equal. However, when people argue that a "calories isn't a calorie" what they are really trying to argue is that macro-nutrients are different, which is true.
Macro-nutrients are the substances that your body derives calories from. There are three primary forms of macro-nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat (alcohol can also be considered a macro-nutrient). Where they are not equal is that proteins and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram (based on current estimates) while fat contains 9 calories per gram. Fat is also the fastest absorbed and easiest to store from of macro-nutrient you can eat, since the other ones require your body to break them down and convert them first.
When people say that all calories are not equal or that your body treats different calories differently what they’re arguing is that if you eat a 500 calorie piece of meat your body will react to it differently than if you eat a 500 calorie piece of cake. This is absolutely true. The cake being mostly fat and sugar will leave your stomach in 40 minutes or so, cause a spike in your insulin levels causing you to store more of it, and since it doesn't have to convert the fat in the cake into fat your body will have to do less work (burn less calories) to digest and process the cake. The piece of meat, on the other hand, will take up to 2 hours to leave your stomach, probably not cause a spike in your insulin levels (although protein can do that), and your body will have to break it down into glucose and fatty acids. So while it may take you 15 calories of energy to digest and process the piece of cake it may take 50 calories to do the same to the piece of meat.
On top of that the piece of meat will have more amino acids in it allowing you to absorb more of its nutritional value.. So the piece of meat will have more of a net nutritional value, not spike your blood sugar, keep you feeling fuller longer, and take more time and calories to digest. It is true that your body does treat macro-nutrients differently; but, at the end of the day you consumed 500 calories either way.